The beauty of cast-iron in Alabama’s grave covers


USA – In Alabama cemeteries, cast-iron was used to make grave covers to prevent erosion and also for headstones, mausoleums, fences and even caskets.

Following the Civil War when people were looking for inexpensive-yet-durable burial markers for their relatives, a civil engineer who tinkered as an inventor got a patent for his grave coverings, which included building supports below-ground.

Joseph R. Abrams of Greenville, Ala., patented the cover design in 1873, suggesting that the mound of earth on underground supports should be covered in cockleshells to prevent erosion and a frame of “any suitable material, separate for convenience in handling and transportation, and may be fitted together like the plates of a stove.”

When put into practice, that suitable material turned out to be cast-iron. Soon, the covers, which look something like intricate roasting-pan tops or large oblong gelatin molds, dotted cemeteries across the country. They were made from pouring molten iron into decorative molds and cooling them. Although the inventor thought they would be durable, and they proved successful in preventing erosion and collapse, people soon found they rusted and turned brittle, causing the name plates and decorations to break. They could also break in freezing weather.

In 1875, Egbert Sipes of Pennsylvania filed a patent for an improved design, stating: “This invention has relation to cast-iron grave-covers; and it consists in making the cover open at the sides, with four supporting legs of sufficient length to elevate the cover to the height of the mound of the grave. In this construction the grave-cover, being open at the sides and ends, cannot become broken by the effect of freezing, an accident which is apt to occur in cold climates.”

Today, relatively few of the cast-iron covers survive, although one of the largest concentrations is preserved in Pioneer Cemetery in Abrams’ hometown of Greenville. The cemetery has at least a dozen cockle-shell graves and nearly as many cast-iron covers. A few other Alabama cemeteries with cast-iron covers include Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery, Eutaw’s Mesopotamia, Decatur City Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery in Conecuh County, Birmingham’s Oak Hill Cemetery and Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile. Most are missing their name plates.

Decorative cast-iron in cemeteries

Cast-iron was not only used to prevent grave-mound erosion but as for creating headstones, mausoleums, fences and even caskets.

Cast-iron caskets

In the mid-1800s, a man came up with an alternative to burials in pine boxes, which were easily accessible to grave robbers. In 1848, Almond Fisk patented a cast-iron coffin that was, quite creepily, shaped like a sarcophagus but was sealed in a way that made it perfect for transporting a body long distances for burial and deterring grave robbers.

Patented as the Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal, it is generally known as the Fisk metallic burial case. The other benefit of its seal was to prevent spread of disease such as yellow fever and cholera during a time when their spread was sometimes blamed on overcrowded cemeteries.

According to a 1963 LIFE magazine article, the Fisk burial case received a testimonial from America’s most prominent men in 1850. It was published in the New York Tribune in April 1850:

“Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases. Gentlemen: We witnessed the utility of your ornamental Patent Metallic Burial Case used to convey the remains of the late Hon. John C. Calhoun to the Congressional Cemetery. It impressed us with the belief that it is the best article known to us for transporting the dead to their final resting place.” It was signed by Jefferson Davis, Henry Dodge, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Lewis Cass.

Fisk built a foundry and manufactured the coffins but he died in 1850. In 1888, the company folded likely due to lingering effects of economic strain and shortage of iron during the Civil War.



Cast-iron headstones are rare but can be found in at least two cemeteries in Alabama: Happy Hollow in Guntersville and Clanton City Cemetery in Chilton County. The two markers in Happy Hollow are small, the size of markers for infant graves although names are no longer visible, and had small doors on hinges. Whatever was located inside the door, likely birth and death information, has been lost to time and the elements. In Clanton City Cemetery, an unusual matching head-and footstone set mark the grave of an unnamed person. The headstone is decorated with a relief of clasped hands but no other information can be seen on the markers.

Slightly more common in Alabama cemeteries are zinc, or white-bronze, markers. They were made from a zinc alloy but were marketed as “white bronze,” which was thought to sound more elegant and desirable. These markers were used from the 1870s to the 1910s. A few zinc grave covers can also be found in Talladega’s Oak Hill Cemetery.


Although building mausolea from cast-iron was rare, Alabama’s Magnolia Cemetery has two surviving examples: The Pomeroy and Slatter mausoleums.

They are made from cast-iron panels over brick frames and both are thought to date to 1860. The Pomeroy family’s mausoleum no longer has a fence and gate but it “displays the same classical detailing in stock panels that were available commercially from a Philadelphia firm,” according to The City of Mobile.

The documents submitted to place the Pomeroy mausoleum on the National Register of Historic Places says Porter B. Pomeroy was an important feed merchant who died ca. 1860: “Whether the mausoleum was constructed before his death or later by his wife and sons has not been determined but considering the economic climate and the availability of iron during the war it seems likely that the tomb was finished before the war.”

The stock panels for the Slatter and Pomeroy mausoleums were ordered from Philadelphia, according to a book by Robert S. Gamble, “Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types, 1810-1930.” Gamble wrote that up until the Civil War, “Alabamians continued to depend heavily upon northern suppliers for architectural components.”

Decorative fences

Despite his success in the world of business, Horace Ware experienced tragedy in his personal life. The founder of Shelby County Iron Manufacturing Co., known as the Shelby Iron Works, Ware began business in the 1840s and built the company into a major player and one of the largest suppliers of iron to the Confederate navy during the Civil War, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Ware’s first wife, Martha Ann, died in 1862 at the age of 41. Their daughter, Roxana, had died at age 6 in 1853. They were buried in Columbiana Cemetery in Shelby County. Because he was an expert in iron working, it’s not surprising that Ware insisted on surrounding the graves of his beloved wife and daughter with an elaborate iron fence, built in 1864. In 1981, the Shelby County Historical Society placed a plaque on the fence to marks its significance as an early and beautiful example of iron work.

The Ware plot fence is one of hundreds of cast- and wrought-iron fences in cemeteries across Alabama. Some are ornate. Some are plain. Many have rusted and broken over the years. Some have been stolen.

The more ornate examples may include funerary symbols such as weeping willows or corn in their designs. Corn might symbolize that the family worked in agriculture or it might be a symbol indicating spiritual goodness or of rebirth. The acorn, the seed of the oak tree, is the symbol for potential, or on a grave of a person who died young, potential unrealized.